Saturday, April 29, 2017

China succeeds at first resupply spacecraft docking

Engineers helping to assemble the Tianzhou-1 robotic space cargo vessel.
On Thursday April 19, China took another step toward its goal of permanent Chinese presence in Earth Orbit, with the launch of a Long March 7 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center. Atop the rocket as the Tianzhou-1, China's first robotic resupply spacecraft. Looking very similar to the standard shape of international space cargo ships such as Cygnus, Japan's H-2, ESA's ATV, the Tianzhou-1 was set on an orbital approach to rendezvous with the Tiangong-2 space station.
Computer representation of Tianzhou-1 in orbit with power panels deployed.
Computer representation of Tianzhou-1 docking with the station Tiandong-2.
 The spacecraft rendezvoused with the station and docked successfully on Saturday the 22nd. With the main objective completed, engineers will study the combined craft operations and testing for two months. After that, Tianzhou-1 will undock and then begin a three-month period of orbital testing. Like many other cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1 is not designed to safely land back on Earth, but will eventually be de-orbited and burned up in the atmospheric re-entry.

Expedition 51 gets off to a busy start on ISS

Current docking arrangements on the ISS. (NASA)

Since the crew switch-over in mid-April, Peggy Whitson has been in command of the ISS and operational leader of Expedition 51. With the departure of Soyuz MS-02 earlier, that left three crew on the station to begin the Expedition 51 adventure: NASA astronaut (and station commander) Peggy Whitson, and flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos), and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). While the crew awaited reiforcements from Earth, they continued biological and technical experiments, and important maintenance for an upcoming EVA on May 12. 

Once again spaceships left Earth to take supplies and new crewmembers to the station. First off the pad (LC-41) was Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spaceship, riding atop an Atlas V rocket, on Tuesday April 18. A couple of days later, on April 20th, SOyuz MS-04 blasted off from Baikonur carrying two new crewmembers, Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roscosmos) and Jack Fisher (NASA).

Last minute photos before the roll-out of the rocket that will carry them to orbit. Yurchikhin (L) and Fisher (R). (NASA)

The Cygnus cargo ship was already in orbit when the Soyuz blasted off the pad. But this time, unlike the previous several launches, there were no more new tests to do certifying the advanced Soyuz, so the craft entered a fast-track six-hour orbital path to the station. Cygnus was on a slow approach that would bring it to the station several days later.

The tried-and-true Soyuz arcs upwards on a fast trip to the station. (NASA)

Soyuz MS_04 arrives at the station (NASA TV)

Six hours later, at 7:18 am Mountain daylight time, MS-04 finally docked at the Poisk module on the ISS. Crewmembers began the seemingly long process of equalizing pressures and turning off the propulsion systems. Three hours later the hatches were opened and Expedition 51 had a total of five crew on board. This was Yurchikhin's fifth trip to the space station, and this was Fisher's first trip to space.
NASA TV image of Cygnus spaceship maneuvering into position after reaching the station.
 On Saturday the 22nd, The Cygnus spacraft had arrived at the station. Using the robotic arm, Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet grappled the cargo ship and brought it to its docking port on the Unity module. The cargo ship was named the John Glenn, after the famous Mercury astronaut who had passed away last year. The cargo amounted to 7,600 pounds of supplies, fuel, air, and experiments. It will stay at the station for about three months while it is unloaded, and garbage stored back into it. 

On April 24, a special moment arrived for the station. Astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the record for US astronauts cumulative time in space, marking 535 days total on her several missions. During the day she received a congratulatory call from President Trump at the Whitehouse. Congratulations to Commander WHitson on this incredible achievement!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Keeping up with the ISS

Current spacecraft docked at ISS. Seems kind of empty now that some spaceships have departed. NASA.

I've had a little gap in my space reporting since early March, but that included an excellent trip to the Kennedy Space Center. So let's see how mankind's orbiting outpost has been doing. Currently, there is only one robotic cargo vessel (Progress 66) and one crew vehicle (Soyuz MS-03) docked. Wait - isn't it more usual to have two crewed vehicles there?

Touchdown! Expedition 50 makes it back to Kazakhstan in a Soyuz capsule (MS-02).
Expedition 50 came to a close on April 10 when Commander Shane Kimbrough and cosmonauts Sergey Rizhikov and Andrey Borisenko left the ISS in Soyuz MS-02 and landed safely in the open steppes of Kazakhstan. That left Expedition 51 in charge of the station, with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson n command supported by flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos) and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). 
Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet pose inside the BEAM inflatable module currently being tested by NASA, attached to the station.
Change of Command ceremony. L-R: Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Rizhikov, Andrey Borisenko, Thomas Pesquet, Oleg Novitskiy, Peggy Whitson.

Unmanned cargo spacecraft have also been on the move. The Dragon 10 spaceship was loaded with items for return to Earth and undocked on March 19. It re-entered the atmosphere and safely deployed a parachute, landing it in the Pacific Ocean for a quick recovery and return to SpaceX for evaluation. 

SpaceX artist rendering of the Dragon plunging through the atmosphere.

Before the conclusion of Expedition 50, there was another important spacewalk to continue preparations for the station to begin receiving Non-NASA manned spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX next year. On March 30, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed a six-and-a-half hour EVA, connecting a computer relay box as well as connecting cables and wires on the Pressurized Mating Adapter -3 (PMA-3). During the EVA, Peggy broke a spacewalking record, making an eighth EVA by a woman astronaut.

Next week will see more cargo spacecraft and new cremembers arriving at the ISS.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

50 Years ago: FIrst steps towards the shuttle designs

SV-5D Lifting Body on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, OH.
Fifty years ago, on March 5, 1967, the US Air Force made a second flight attempt in a series of experiments to test how a lifting body shape would control re-entry into the atmosphere. The first launch had been made in December of 1966, resulting in a crash of the test vehicle into the sea. On this second attempt, a lifting body (also known as the X-23 made by Martin Marietta) was launched atop an Atlas missile and the craft separated and simulated a re-entry. At Mach 2 a special designed parachute deployed to recover the vehicle, which was supposed to be picked up by a flying cargo aircraft which would grab the parachute.

X-23 atop an Atlas Missile before launch.
In the second flight, the parachute deployed but as the recovery aircraft flew by for inspection it noticed the proper parachute opening had not occurred, and so it would be dangerous to attempt an in-flight recovery. It was determined to allow the craft to descend to the sea for ship pick-up. Unfortunately the craft and parachute sank before the ship could arrive.
The third attempt on April 19 was a complete success. The parachute deployed properly, and the recovery cargo plane was able to snag the chute and bring the craft home. Although the craft was declared ready to be flown again, no further test flights with this design were made.
A view of the recovery cargo plane just before parachute capture.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

ISS: Busy Traffic Week

 Current Spacecraft positions on the ISS. Credit: NASA.

It was a very busy week for the crew of Expedition 50 on the International Space Station. In between station maintenance, science experiments, and preparations for future work, the crew needed to be on their toes dealing with all the intracacies of arriving robotic spacecraft.

Launch Pad 39B with the SpaceX Falcon rocket. Launch Control and the Vehicle Assembly Building seen in the background. SpaceX.

Events started with a roar on Sunday. From the historic LC-39B pad, SpaceX launched Dragon 10, their unmanned cargo spacecraft, on a mission to take supplies to the ISS. The launch went very well, and Dragon began its 2 day voyage to rendezvous with the station. 

First launch from Pad 39B since the retirement of the shuttle in 2011.

In a historic first, the Dragon 10 lifted off from its pad on the Falcon rocket as the first commercial rocket to launch from the famous pad 39, where decades earlier the astronauts flew the mighty Saturn Vs to the Moon in project Apollo, and then later when the space shuttles began their routine missions into low Earth orbit. This pad site has been modified from the shuttle operations to accept more commercially-operated designs. It is currently leased to SpaceX, which previously had been using the Pad 40 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force station. That pad was damaged in a Falcon Explosion in September of 2016. It is expected that future manned SpaceX flights will also take place from 39B.
Separation of Dragon-10 from the second stage. SpaceX.
In a further demonstration of their rocket prowess, the controllers of SpaceX carefully guided the first stage of the Falcon back through the atmosphere to a safe, upright landing at the landing pad on Cape Canaveral. The first stage will be examined, refurbished, and re-used on a future flight to help save funding. 
Dragon-10 approaches the pickup point.
Docking with the ISS proved to have some difficulties. As the spacecraft made its first approach to the ISS, a fault in the GPS tracking triggered an orbit of docking approach and the spacecraft was backed away from the station while engineers investigated the problem. A work-around was configured, and a second attempt the next day was successful. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet used the robotic arm to grapple and then dock the Dragon temporarily at the Node-2 docking port. They used cameras to record the outer condition of the Dragon for engineers to study later. Then the craft was moved to the Common Berthing Module.
Meanwhile, back in Russia...
In a nice daytime blastoff, the Russian space agency launched a Progress resupply spacecraft into orbit from the Baikonur facility. Known both as MS-05 and as Progress 66, the Soyuz-U rocket used a different third stage motor design than was used on the previous Progress MS-04 mission. That motor suffered a catastrophic failure in the oxidizer turbopump, which shredded the engine and lost the spacecraft in flight.
 Picture-perfect liftoff of the Soyuz-U rocket with Progress 66 aboard. Spaceflight Now.
After an 8-minute flight and stage separations, the Progress 66 ship was on its way to the station. The flight plan for this mission again called for a 2-day orbit path, giving engineers plenty of time to test and verify all functions carefully. The S-band uplink navigation system was able to complete its flight-certification, the last step in preparations to begin using the latest Progress design in the preferred single day orbital approach flight plan.
Progress 66 approaching the ISS, with its solar panels making a symmetrical wing-like appearance.
On Friday, the Progress 66 spacecraft reached its rendezvous point with the station and engineers carefully guided the vehicle into its docking position. The spacecraft completed its flight at the Pirs module docking port. This makes the 68th successful Progress mission to the ISS, delivering supplies and experiments to the station.
The next supply mission expected is the Cygnus mission on March 19.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

50 Years ago: Lunar Orbiters Scout for Landing Sites

Lunar Orbiter Engineering Mockup.
Fifty years ago, in February 1967, NASA pressed on with the preparations for the Apollo missions despite the recent deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. The purpose of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft was to photograph potential landing sites for the Apollo missions expected to occur within the next few years. This particular spacecraft, Lunar Orbiter 3, blasted off from pad LC-19 at Cape Kennedy (Canaveral) on February 5, 1967. 
Lunar Orbiter 3's ride: Atlas-Agena D.
The Atlas rocket was basically the same as those which powered America's first orbital manned missions. The Agena second stage was a fueled and powered-up version of the Agena target vehicles used during the Gemini program. The orbiter itself was built at the Langley facility in Virginia, recently featured in the movie, "Hidden Figures."
Liftoff from Pad LC-19.
Blast off took place before dawn and the rocket lifted the Agena into position where its motors pushed the spacecraft fast enough to defeat Earth's gravity. The Orbiter reached the Moon on February 8. The camera recorded lunar images from February 15 to 23. Over 500 images were taken.
Image from Lunar Orbiter 3.
Image quality was very good, so much so that one image managed to pinpoint the landing spot for Surveyor 1. The spacecraft stayed in orbit in a gradually decaying orbit when it struck the lunar surface in October 1967.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

50 Years Ago: Apollo 1 Fire

Astronauts Gus Grissom (L), Ed White (C), and Roger Chaffee (R). Picture taken at Launch Complex 34, with the gantry tower in the background.

Hard to believe it was fifty years ago. On January 27, 1967, we lost three astronauts during a test of the newly-designed Apollo command module  at the eventual launch site. It's a famous event, most of us remember reading about it. Mostly I remember having seen something on TV and having adults tell me what happened. Over the years I learned more and more of the mistakes that were made leading up to the moment of terror when an electrical arc from an exposed wire ignited the 100% oxygen in the test environment. The fire was quick and the intensity so hot and at such incredible pressure that it cracked the hull of the capsule and prevented immediate attempts to rescue the crew. But it was too late - the crew died firstly from the toxic fumes. Today I don't want to remember the scenes of the aftermath, there are plenty of sites on the Internet and a plethora of books describing it all. I like to picture them as they were before the fire, as shown above.

Above is an aerial view of LC-34. It was taken in 1963 during preparations for SA-4, a test launch of Saturn 1. You can see the twin gantry towers, which is the red tower complex seen in the first photo. A test Saturn rocket sits on the concrete pad base attached to the launch tower. The circular building is the launchpad protective firing room. It's obvious how close the pad was to the shoreline. Today it is all gone, except for the roads, concrete pads, the rocket launch base, and the firing room bunker. 

The photo above is from my last trip to the Cape. This is the approach road to the complex on the western side. The concrete pads are out of sight to the right, while in the distance you can see launch towers from LC-37 ( still active launch site) on the left. You can visit the site if you take the Cape Canaveral AFB tour from the Kennedy Space Center visitors Center. This tour is only available during days when no rocket launches are planned, and I think only one tour a day is allowed. 

The tour bus lets you off within walking distance of the launch pad base. The tower itself was scrapped years later, as were most of the facilities on old launch pads. It's actually quite a wide concrete base. There is a great feeling of quiet there except for the wind that blows towards the Atlantic just a short distance away.

This picture gives a greater sense of the size of the base related to human height. As you can see, weather and age are having its toll on the structure. There is some talk of tearing it down, but I would rather see some funds put into an effort to restore it. I would love to see NASA build a small building here to protect it from the elements and display in miniature how the pad looked and operated. To me, the pads are just as important as the rockets.

Next you can see the gigantic opening made for the flame exhaust from the mighty Saturn 1 engines. I believe the tubular ring is part of the fire suppression system to lesson the ground shock of the engine power. There is something symbolic in being able to look upwards towards space through this open portal. 

These are the blast deflectors which would be placed under the rocket to deflect the fire and exhaust to a horizontal direction, avoiding a wave of pressure and flame from rebounding off the ground and damaging the engine section. These were not scrapped yet when I visited, and are stored at the edge of the giant pad. In the old picture of the pad, click it to enlarge it, and look behind the left side of the towers about midway up, and you can see on of these deflectors. That's where they still are.

 From the launch tower base, you can look somewhat south and see the firing room bunker. In case of danger, the crew would be evacuated from the rocket, and taken up a long protected tunnel to the blast-resistant bunker. You can find it in the old complex photo very easily.

This is a view of the Firing room bunker as we drove past it in the bus. There was no stopping here, the bunker is off-limits to the tour. Our guide did not know if anything has been preserved inside the bunker. It was planned that the Saturn 1b rockets would launch from this pad complex, and the launch control room would have been in here. As it was, four Saturn 1 test launches were from here, and there were two Saturn 1B test launches from this pad before the Apollo 1 fire. Afterwards, the return of astronauts to space took place in the next manned launch, Apollo 7, from this complex. Operations then moved to the LC-39 complex.

When you walk under the launch base, you can feel history there. You sense the reverence and awe in the fellow visitors, and everyone whispers even though we are out in the open. This is part of our great space race past, and it is a place that deserves to be preserved and visited.